How Gary Sanchez Collapsed from Potential MVP to Yankees Burden

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 18, 2018

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 02:  Gary Sanchez #24 of the New York Yankees in action against the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium on September 2, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York City. The Tigers defeated the Yankees 11-7.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Not so long ago, Gary Sanchez was the future of the New York Yankees.

Yes, they had uber-slugger Aaron Judge. Sure, they were the Yankees, perennial big spenders with a suddenly enviable supply of young talent marinating in the minors. 

But after the 2016 season, Sanchez looked like the most exciting player in pinstripes.

In 53 games that year, the 23-year-old posted a 1.032 OPS and hit 20 home runs. He finished second in American League Rookie of the Year voting behind Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer.

In 2017, Sanchez eschewed a sophomore slump with 33 home runs and an .876 OPS. He picked up stray AL MVP votes, as his star was blasting across the MLB firmament. 

In 2018, that star has come crashing to earth.

Entering play Monday, Sanchez was hitting .188. He's gone 9-for-47 with 15 strikeouts in September.

Just as damningly, his defense has vacillated between suspect and atrocious. Despite missing extensive time to injury and playing in only 79 games, Sanchez is tied for the big league lead with 13 passed balls. 

Jim Mone/Associated Press

In the first inning of a pivotal contest against the Oakland Athletics on Sept. 5, Sanchez allowed two passed balls and whiffed on a pair of wild pitches. The Yanks lost to their chief rival in the AL wild-card scramble, 8-2. New York starter Luis Severino called the first inning of that game "a mess," per Billy Witz of the New York Times.  

That's a fitting description of Sanchez both behind the dish and in the batter's box.

We knew he was raw defensively and had work to do. His saving grace was his howitzer arm, with which he gunned down 41 percent of would-be base stealers in 2016 and 38 percent in 2017. This year, that figure sits at a more pedestrian 27 percent.

He can't catch or throw especially well. He's hitting below the Mendoza Line. What the heck happened?

The aforementioned injuries can't be ignored. A nagging groin issue cost Sanchez a significant portion of this season, which can mess with any young player's timing. Speaking of youth, the 25-year-old is in only his second full MLB campaign. 

Still, with Judge and Giancarlo Stanton anchoring the lineup around him, this was supposed to be Sanchez's moment.

Instead, the artist formerly known as "The Kraken" is sinking like a cement fish.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Here's something of note: Sanchez's fly ball percentage sits at 42.0 percent, per FanGraphs, up from a career average of 37.8 percent. Meanwhile, his line drive percentage is 14.6 percent, down from a career mark of 18.2 percent.

Perhaps that's a blip. Or maybe it means Sanchez is trying too hard to crush the ball into the stratosphere.

Looking at those numbers, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Sanchez in November 2016 after his eye-popping breakout. 

I asked him to identify the moment he truly felt he belonged in The Show. Here was his answer:

"When I first got called up, I went oh-fer my first couple of games. I was feeling anxious because I wanted to get my first hit. And [then-manager Joe] Girardi came up to me and said, 'Gary, take it easy. You're going to be in the lineup every day. Just go out there and do what you would do in the minor leagues.'

"That was the moment where I just felt the confidence to go out there and take some pressure off my shoulders and do what I needed to do."

Perhaps Sanchez isn't entirely over those rookie jitters. Maybe the weight of expectations and the stints on the disabled list are holding him back.

No one denies the kid's immense talent. He has the tools to be one of the best catchers in either league and to join the pantheon of Yankees legends. 

Can he rebound and capitalize? That's the question.

"He works a lot," Severino said of Sanchez, per Newsday's Erik Boland. "I've been with him since I was in Double-A [in 2014] and I see the progress. He worked his [butt] off to get better."

Hard work is one thing; results are another.

Sanchez used to be the future. The Yankees can only hope he regains that form soon.

       

All statistics current entering Monday and courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.  

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